The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.
Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?
We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALL BREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.
Here is part two of our look at the East Region, featuring number one seed Villanova, a hot Duke Blue Devils team at the two, and a tough test of mid-majors and solid seeds throughout.
The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Tulsa, Oklahoma
6. SMU Mustangs vs. 11. (Providence/ USC)
For the SMU Mustangs, balance is the key to success. Each and every one of SMU’s starters is a legitimate threat to score at any time – each starter scores at least 9.9 points per game. The balance doesn’t stop with scoring, however. Each starter also grabs at least four rebounds, and four of the five dish out at least two assists per game. SMU rode that balanced approach to a 30-4 record on the strength of its the 11th ranked KenPom offense and 29th ranked KenPom defense.
That balance is critical for SMU because depth is a huge weakness for the team. Following Harry Froling’s early season injury, the team basically runs a six-man rotation with Ben Emelogu giving the starters occasional rest through his 20 minutes per game.
Offensively, wings Semi Ojeleye, Sterling Brown, and Shake Milton all attempt over four three-pointers per game and make them at a 42-43 percent clip. All three stand at 6’6” or 6’7” which allows them to easily get shots off over smaller defenders. Milton, the Mustangs’ point guard, is the team’s best player at creating off the dribble and getting shooters open looks. When SMU does miss those shots, they rebound their misses at the eighth best rate in the country, again through a very balanced attacking of the glass.
Defensively, SMU sends opponents to the free-throw line less than nearly any team in the country while still holding opponents to the 20th best defensive shooting efficiency in the country. SMU’s depth may create issues later in the tournament, or early, if they get in foul trouble, but don’t let their mid-major tag fool you — SMU is as dangerous as almost any team in this year’s field. — Matt Way
Ed Cooley has shortened his bench late in the season and relied on two freshmen off the bench heavier than ever as the Friars look to build on a starting group with some NCAA Tournament experience. Providence relies on a dynamic frontcourt of athletes in Rodney Bullock and Emmett Holt. Bullock, an undersized forward who is forced to play the 5, will have to step up and be physical on the interior. Holt, a transfer from Indiana, must help out on the glass and spread defenses out with his inconsistent outside shot. When Holt is playing well, the Friars are rolling.
The Friars are paced by their point guard play though, as Kyron Cartwright comes into the tournament fourth in the country in assist rate. Cartwright creates easy shots for his teammates, and having multiple shooters and scorers around him has been the bread-and-butter of the Friars’ attack. Cooley always has his players playing smart, and their Flex offense is the best way to leverage that discipline and savvy IQ while also giving Cartwright a rest from his creation in transition and ball screens.
Their stingiest attribute is their defense, especially brutalizing teams that don’t have an interior presence with physical play and quick hands on the perimeter. That’s always been the M.O. of an Ed Cooley coached team. KenPom lists the Friars as a top-forty defensive team in their efficiency metrics.
Cooley has the Friars playing their best basketball late in the season — they won their final six regular season games before the Big East tournament. An up-tempo game against USC will be fun, and if the Friars make it to through the 11-seed play-in, they’ll be a difficult matchup for a physical SMU team. — Adam Spinella
Andy Enfield’s Trojans were sweating on selection Sunday as bracketologist Joe Lunardi had them as his first team out heading into the bracket reveal. But USC squeaked into the first four and will face Providence for the second year in a row, this time for the right to play SMU. The committee was low on the Pac-12, awarding just four bids and leaving out Cal, but felt USC had done enough. For USC, they are 61st in Kenpom, 46th in offensive efficiency and 86th in defensive efficiency. It will be a tossup against Providence, a good defensive team that really struggles to score. Last year the Friars won by one point, and this one should be close as well.
USC gets points from junior Jordan McLaughlin (13.1), Bennie Boatwright (14.6) and Chimezie Metu (14.5). McLaughlin is a 42 percent three-point shooter and when he’s on, USC’s offense makes them competitive against anyone. They beat BYU in a shootout, 91-84, and got their signature win against UCLA, a win that probably was the difference for them in being awarded one of the last at-large bids.
The Trojans are capable of outscoring Providence, but their lack of defense makes it unlikely they go on a run to the second weekend. — Eli Horowitz
3. Baylor Bears vs. 14. New Mexico State Aggies
Scott Drew’s team is cold heading into the NCAA Tournament, having lost four of their last seven games. But Drew will rely on a hefty schedule, athleticism and a nightmare matchup 1-3-1 zone to befuddle opponents as the Bears look to end their recent years of dismal play in March. It’s hard to believe now looking at their resume that the Bears were the number one team in the country during this season, but it also shows just how far they’ve fallen over the last few weeks.
It’s still so hard to score on Baylor. Jonathan Motley is just shy of averaging a double-double. He’s an incredible athlete and rim protector, plus he can fly around on the perimeter and contest. Next to him is Jo Lual-Acuil, one of the best shot blockers in the nation. Those two rarely give up offensive rebounds and make up a defense allowing opponents to shoot just 44 percent from two-point range.
Part of it is players, part of it is scheme. Drew has long run a 1-3-1 matchup zone that is foreign to teams that haven’t seen it or practiced against it. With their length and athleticism on the wings, Baylor creates havoc for teams that try to lob over the top (a common weakness of the 1-3-1) or hit skip passes into open thres. Baylor clogs both up so well, and holds other teams to low efficiency ratings without getting into the ball and creating turnovers. This type of zone forces offenses to think, and more often than not the Bears win the mental game.
On offense, Motley is the anchor down low. It’s nice to have a 40 percent three-point shooter and their second leading scorer Manu Lecomte back, as he’s recovering from an ankle injury. He and Jake Lindsey are a good one-two combo at the point; Lecomte brings speed and playmaking, while Lindsey is taller and can knock down shots. Both shoot above 40 percent and give the spacing needed for Motley to be the go-to option. The 17 point per game scorer is the key reason the Bears shoot 52.5 percent from inside the arc.
While the Bears have declined recently, none of their losses since Feb. 1 have been by more than six points. A close game might not favor the Bears, but they’ve yet to lose a game to a team outside the Big Twelve, where opponents have the athleticism, size and tactical know-how to break down their defense. Predicting a run for Baylor isn’t easy, and a team with great guard play and passing big men is tailor-made to burst the zone defense. — Adam Spinella
A year ago, Marvin Menzies leveraged consecutive 23-11 seasons into a new job at UNLV. In 2016-17, first-year head coach Paul Weir improved on Manzies’ success to the tune of a 28-5 record. After a second place regular season finish in the WAC, New Mexico State beat regular season champion Cal State Bakersfield in the finals of the conference tournament to return the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament after a year’s absence.
Offensively, New Mexico State was successful this year on the strength of their offensive rebounding and ability to get to the free throw line. Starting frontcourt members Jemerrio Jones and Eli Chuha both finished the season in the top 30 in the country in offensive rebounding rate. Chuha, the Aggies’ sophomore center, also ranked 14th in the country in free throw rate.
Defensively, the Aggies were not so successful. New Mexico State ranked 134th in the country in defensive efficiency per KenPom. The one thing the Aggies do very well defensively is defend the three-point line – opponents shot only 30.1 percent from behind the arc this season.
The Aggies drew Baylor in the round of 64, a team that does not shoot well from deep. Baylor also, however, attempts the majority of their shots from inside the arc, where New Mexico State’s defense is not nearly as good. If the Aggies are going to upset Baylor, Eli Chuha will need to continue to be strong on the offensive boards and live at the free throw line. If he doesn’t, it’s unlikely that New Mexico State’s defense will be able to get enough stops to pull the upset. — Matt Way
The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Greenville, South Carolina
7. South Carolina Gamecocks vs. 10. Marquette Golden Eagles
After being left out the field last season, Frank Martin’s team put together a resume that couldn’t be left out this time around. South Carolina won 22 games, including 12 SEC games, before a disappointing loss to Alabama in their first SEC tournament game. The Gamecocks are led by Sindarius Thornwell’s 21 points and seven rebounds per game, and get considerable production from Duane Notice, PJ Dozier and Chris Silva. Both Thornwell and Dozier are potential second round picks this season as they are big guards that have the size to defend in the NBA. Thornwell is one of the best players in the SEC, and is a load to handle. His play kept South Carolina competitive all season, and their only head-scratching loss was at Memphis in non-conference play.
South Carolina’s bread and butter is defense; they’re ranked third in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. This team plays physical and has big guards that rebound and can defend multiple positions. When you play South Carolina, win or lose, it’s going to wear you down.
On the flip side, South Carolina struggles to score; they’re a sub-100 team in offensive efficiency. No one on the team averages even three assists per game, and their offense becomes completely stilted at times. They shoot just 69 percent from the line and 34 percent from deep as a team, and rely on a lot of midrange looks.
South Carolina has a chance in a first round matchup because of the way they defend, but it’s hard to imagine them stringing together enough offense to get to the Sweet Sixteen. — Eli Horowitz
Finishing the regular season 5-5 isn’t exactly a recipe for success in March. But if there’s one thing that former Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski knows, it’s that he’ll be prepared to face Duke on the second game of opening weekend. They have to win their first round matchup before they get there, but picking Marquette could be a high risk high reward proposition.
Marquette can shoot the hell out of the ball, and that’s what has propelled them to quite a few high profile victories already this year. Nobody has a better percentage from three (43 percent) and everyone one thru four on the court can let it fly. As you’d expect, the Golden Eagles convert from the free throw line when they get there, but shooting teams are less aggressive, and they are 284th in FT rate nationally.
Freshman Markus Howard is a big time player that could be a national difference-maker in just a year or two. Right now, the frosh has been blanketed by a balanced offensive attack on this young but dangerous Marquette team. They have an incredible up-tempo offense and multiple scorers that ease his burden. But Foster is their best playmaker, and he’s the guy that opposing defenses need to key in on. Five players average at least two assists per game, and their equality opportunity offense means that if Foster is covered, someone else is likely to step up.
Defensively, Marquette doesn’t necessarily have the firepower to stop a team from scoring wherever they want. They’re one of the worst defensive units in the tournament, despite Luke Fischer being an exemplary shot blocker. When Wojciechowski has mixed in a 1-3-1 zone, it has worked to give opponents a pause, but might not be sustainable for long stretches against a really good team. It all comes down to shooting for the Golden Eagles — it’s why they’re in the tournament, but it could come back to bite them. — Adam Spinella
2. Duke Blue Devils vs. 15. Troy Trojans
Just when we start to think other ACC teams are better national championship contenders, Coach K has his team do what they did last week. Three hard-fought wins in three days, all over top 25 teams and NCAA at-large bids. It’s a timely streak for the Blue Devils, who lost three of their final four in the regular season. Duke’s up-and-down year is indicative of all the injuries and adversity they have faced. Could it be that now the Devils are hitting their stride at the right time and are one of the favorites for a trip to Phoenix?
Luke Kennard might be the best scorer in all of college basketball, which shouldn’t be a surprise considering he broke LeBron James’ high school scoring record in the state of Ohio. Kennard is a smooth lefty that scores on all levels, has a nice use of his off-hand on the inside and is quite good at coming off screens and setting his feet. He’s a legitimate pro prospect, joining three other members of this Duke roster as potential first-round picks. That type of depth and playmaking is dangerous — no team is as top-heavy with talent in the country, and since the Dukies don’t have a true point guard, there’s no head of the snake to squeeze and cut off circulation to the rest of the offense.
The closest thing to a point guard would be embattled junior Grayson Allen, having his own roller coaster of a season with accusations of dirty play, suspensions and a cold streak to close out the season. Harry Giles, the fab freshman who has slowly been working back from a torn ACL, looks like he’s rounding into form and has been a necessary piece for Duke’s shallow frontcourt. Of course, the top pro prospect is freshman forward Jayson Tatum, a Carmelo Anthony-like scorer in isolations and from three that has lifted the Blue Devils as their de facto power forward. Tatum should hear his name called in the top five in the draft this June.
With all those pieces, it’s no surprise that KenPom rates Duke with the sixth best offensive efficiency in the nation. But this is Coach K we’re talking about, and defense is his top priority. It also happens to be where Duke is most underrated. They are a top-40 defense in terms of efficiency, and are top-five in three point defense, holding opponents to under 30 percent from deep this season. That in itself is a weapon in the NCAA Tournament, when underdogs rely on getting hot from three to knock off a superbly talented team like Duke.
Betting on Coach K to get back to the Final Four? A week ago, it never seemed more doubtful. But after a dominating performance in the ACC Tournament, it’s hard not to envision Duke making a good run well into the second weekend. — Adam Spinella
After defeating Texas State in the Sun Belt conference tournament finals, the Troy Trojans qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. The Trojans finished the season 22-14, which was the school’s first winning record since 2010. Troy and its fans are undoubtedly excited about their good year, but now their road gets really difficult after they drew red-hot Duke in the round of 64.
Troy’s resurgence was largely the product of a much improved offense in 2016-17. Forwards Jordon Varnado and Jeremy Holliman lead the way, both using over 26% of possessions when they’re on the floor and scoring efficiently while doing so. Holliman is particularly dangerous from behind the arc, shooting nearly 43% on over 100 attempts this season.
The Trojans’ third option offensively is a name that should be familiar to viewers – Wesley Person Jr.’s NBA father was a standout at Auburn in the early 90s. Person holds the top offensive rating of any Trojan player this year, with an outstanding 120.6.
Defensively, Troy struggles in pretty much every area, leading to a 225th ranking nationally according to KenPom. Troy might be able to score some points against Duke, but their poor defense won’t be able to limit Duke’s terrific offense enough to pull a first round upset. — Matt Way